Olga Mack was 13 when she accompanied her political refugee parents as they touched down on American soil in San Francisco. She was in an alien world and didn’t speak the language. On the day she registered to attend Washington High School, she was overwhelmed by feelings of being out of place and without a voice. Years later, she stood on stage as a Valedictorian at her UC Berkeley commencement and delivered a speech. “There’s nothing like an audience of over 10,000 people to make you feel you have a voice!” she said.
Now Mack, adjunct law professor at Cal with her voice intact—works as General Counsel at the Silicon start-up ClearSlide, a digital sales support company headquartered in San Francisco. Having married her Berkeley law school sweetheart, she’s also a mother and wife. In addition, Olga became founder of a new movement that aims to shake up Fortune 500 companies whose boards of directors are all men. Called the Women Serve On Boards petition movement, it was born out of her desire to change the status quo of “the old boys club.”
Throughout her career working at companies such as Visa and Zoosk, Mack developed a reputation as a tough, outspoken, and successful attorney. It was earlier this year that she had what she calls a “WTF moment” at an after-hours business meeting: “I was surrounded by what seemed like a sea of men,” she says—and she was appalled by it.
Gender diversity in U.S. boardrooms is rising, “but at a glacial pace,” according to Ernst & Young, a global research company. In 2016, diversity rose by 17 percent—and if this pace continues, by 2049 diversity will increase by a mere 50 percent. Mack would like to accelerate that, and currently has Land O’ Lakes and Discovery Communications on her radar—two of the 24 Fortune 500 corporations that do not have women serving on their boards.
To date, Mack says she is seeing results from the petitions. In response to an inquiry from Fortune magazine, Land O’ Lakes stated that “four of ten board members for the Land O’Lakes Foundation Board for 2016 are female, through appointment by our CEO.” The company has also promoted senior female executive Beth Ford to Group Executive Vice President and COO, overseeing a large portion of the corporation’s business.
This is promising, but Mack still has a lot of work to do. As a mother of two daughters, she hopes that by the time her children enter the workforce, the age-old stereotypes will be long gone. She reiterates that one of the reasons for such a slow pace is that there are “not enough women in leadership because of a lack of mentorship.”
Her crusade has created a conflict of interest. Numerous Fortune 500 companies Mack targeted happened to be clients of ClearSlide. According to the company website, ClearSlide, itself, has no women on their board and employs just one woman executive. Mack could easily have sabotaged her current job while potentially burning bridges with clients. These were risks she was willing to take.
“The fear of losing my job is not the scariest thing to happen, because being from the Soviet Union as political refugees where I’ve seen bread lines and people politically persecuted … losing my job doesn’t register as a fear.”
And when she sat down with her male bosses they were very receptive, she said, even encouraging her to move ahead with the initiative. The idea, however, didn’t sit well with everyone, she said. “I received hate mail, but the majority of feedback I got were from people encouraging me and rooting me on, but doing so quietly.”
Mack does not see this as a political issue, nor does she believe the problem resides with men. “People would tell me that gender issues are political issues and that taking a stand on the issue is political. Yet, I refuse to see it as political.” She believes, she says, that a lack of mentorship and female leadership is the root of the problem. “It is a combination of outdated practices, unwillingness to change, institutions that support it…. Men are in fact women’s biggest allies and many have declared themselves to be feminists,” Mack says.
Feminist author Jessica Valenti sees it differently, writing in The Guardian: “[W]e need more than men’s grudging participation—we need them to take active responsibility. In the workplace, where they can do more to fight for equal pay and against discrimination … disparity is a problem that they created. It’s only fair that men fix it.”
Mary Brinton, sociology professor at Harvard University and instructor of Inequality and Society in Contemporary Japan, says that society should continue to “encourage people to go beyond stereotypes and recognize the contributions that each individual, male or female, can make to the workplace and to relationships at home.”
And as it stands, the research shows that when there’s women in leadership positions, “they’re more friendly to policies that help women, more friendly to promoting women and hiring women,” says Heidi Hartmann, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank.